After Michael Jackson died, all the usual suspects came out of the woodwork to inflame, speculate, accuse, defend, and memorialize. Media vultures like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Gloria Allred took their well-worn places, along with ex-attorneys, autopsy specialists, and professional pundits. Hundreds of thousands of Jackson’s fans filled the internet with glowing praise and sad goodbyes. A handful of people questioned the lofty praise being heaped upon a man based almost wholly on his entertainment value rather than the whole of his character, which was, at best disturbing.
At my neighborhood coffee shop, the young barista was crying as she wrote a Michael Jackson trivia question on the chalkboard. She was upset that other people were not sharing her sense of loss. “He wasn’t a child molester,” she said to me vehemently. “All those people, they just lied to get money. He was found innocent.” Curious, I asked her how she would feel if a man in her neighborhood regularly invited pubescent boys to sleep in his bedroom — would she give the same benefit of the doubt to him?
She defended Jackson by citing his lost childhood, his purportedly abusive father, his inability to escape the chokehold of fame and its attending entourage of shady people. My question wasn’t answered, but the implication was obvious — Michael Jackson wasn’t just a man, but an icon. A disfigured Peter Pan whose existence was warped in pain and wrapped in love. Someone so ethereal that he couldn’t possibly be expected to be bound by earthly rules.
I’ve known many adult survivors of childhood abuse, and even extreme poverty, who didn’t suffer the chokehold of fame, but rather the crush of invisibility. Their lives as children, coming home to molesters and abusers, or rundown apartments with empty cupboards and absent parents, was surreal. They watched the world as it existed outside their immediate boundaries, and couldn’t grasp the reasons for the disparity or the divide. They felt inferior, ashamed, and largely disconnected.
Most survivors entered adulthood with striking disadvantages, and far fewer resources than average, leaving them to hardscrabble their way through college or the workforce, expanding their sense of being set-apart. The gritty details of their childhoods were not memories they could casually share as others did. Instead of their feeling of “difference” being lessened as an adult, it was heightened by the stories told by peers. Happy tales of close families, holiday dinners, camping trips, and other fond memories can evoke a range of responses in those who were abused or neglected as children, but most often they hit a tender spot. . . an aching space left behind by the child whose prayers and wishes went unanswered, but who never stopped hoping.
Yet, unlike Michael, most survivors of childhood abuse and neglect could not build Neverland-like sanctuaries in an attempt to relive their childhoods, or to assuage the growing pains of adulthood. Some survivors, like Michael, had a difficult time being “normal” and were ostracized or labeled as freaks, adding more trauma to an already challenging life. Yet there were no walls they could hide behind — no team or staff they could call upon for protection — and most of all, there were no acceptable excuses.
Get over it, get on with it, leave the past behind, think positive, it’s not what others do to you it’s how you choose to feel about it, lift yourself up, be strong, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. . .
There are thousands of bromides spoken in the direction of everyday survivors, but there’s very little real interest or understanding shown in their lives, their struggles, or their sense of outsidedness. The few stories told about their otherworldly existences are those that have big, splashy, feel-good endings.
Success-against-all-odds stories are popular, but in reality they are rare. Unfortunately, the pervasive messages in such stories leaves society with less understanding of lives on the periphery, not more. And, of course, more bromides follow — if you want something bad enough it will be yours, if you try hard enough you will succeed, no one but you can stand in the way of your dreams.
The actual successes of most adult survivors tend to be much quieter, far less grand, more challenging, and many times more excruciating than the stories or the aphorisms tell.
Talent, charisma, opportunity, education, circumstances, looks, connections, resources, personality, geography — these are just a few of the factors that can effect any person’s success. Adult survivors often start at a deficit in a few different categories, and it can take years to catch up. For instance, I saw a young woman the other day, about 19, who had terrible teeth. The damage was so pervasive that it could only be attributed to years of childhood neglect. I had a flashback to one boss of mine turning an otherwise qualified candidate away because of her mangled smile. He said, “if she can’t take care of her teeth, how can I expect her to take care of my business?” I could only wonder about the number of social and employment opportunities this young woman would miss, and the vicious cycle she might face — the inability to get a higher paying job due to her appearance, leading to not being able to afford the dental work she needs to look more presentable.
Many such cycles exist, especially in poverty. The poor pay more for everything from their power deposits, to phones, to the car tires they have to put on buy here-pay here credit. A minor crisis, such as a broken arm or blown transmission, can set off a chain of events with months-long, even years-long, consequences.
I understand having sympathy for Michael Jackson – not because he was an entertainer, but because he was a human being who was obviously troubled and in need of help he never received. I believe his story speaks to so many things that should be more vigorously questioned than they are. Should public figures, especially when they are minors, have the same right as non-public others to a reasonable amount of personal space — should California’s proposed “buffer zone” law be adopted nationally? Should sexual molestation cases involving children be allowed to be settled privately? How much non-material privilege should wealth be able to buy? Should parents of non-biological test-tube and surrogate babies be screened as adoptive parents are?
On a more personal level, what is to be said about parents who knowingly let their children sleep in the same room as an adult male because he was famous? What about America’s seemingly incessant hunger for sensational (and often untrue) tabloid stories?
Why is it that so many in society will extend empathy to the famous that they wouldn’t extend to others? Why do we so often scramble to make excuses or provide justification for the bad acts of celebrities when we wouldn’t do the same for our neighbors?
Michael Jackson will remain an icon, likely for decades after his death, just as Elvis Presley did. His albums are now topping the Billboard charts again, and his music and his style of dance will live on in many tributes, to be revered and copied by at least another generation. He was, without question, an extraordinary talent.
My question is, how extraordinary are we as a society? And if we’re not as outstanding as we know we should be — if we are not seeking to give our best thoughts, empathy, and support to every deserving human being, regardless of their wealth or fame — then shouldn’t we try a little harder?
This article is also on the Huffington Post for those who would like to comment.